Towards a Polycentric History of Psychology (1996)
Abstract: The most influential histories of psychology tend to adopt the perspective of a particular centre of psychological development, most often the USA, with developments elsewhere forming a kind of periphery. Conceptualizations and practices favoured by social conditions at the centre are treated as universally valid core principles of the discipline while knowledge emerging at the periphery is often awarded only local significance. More recently, this model has become difficult to maintain and the history of the field is more readily seen in terms of an interaction among several focal centres. Such a perspective leads to an analysis of the way in which the generation, transmission and application of psychological knowledge has been shaped by power relationships as well as by cultural biases and barriers. A polycentric history has considerable relevance for current developments within the discipline.
Is there such a thing as
the history of
psychology? Is there a definitive linear narrative to be told about the origins
of psychological speculation in Ancient Greece, its long imprisonment in the
philosophical discourse of mediaeval and post-mediaeval
There is another reason why there can be no such thing as
the history of
psychology, even if we restrict ourselves to modern psychology. This discipline
did not develop from a single seed sprouting in one specific location, certainly
not from Wundt's
But which local developments will be singled out in this way? What criteria will
determine this choice? In the past, two criteria have played a prominent role.
First, there was the historian's own affiliation with a particular part of the
discipline, an affiliation which could easily lead him to assign a central,
unifying, role to that part, even substituting the history of that part for the
history of the field as a whole. A well known example is provided by E.G.
Boring's A History of Experimental
Psychology (1950), where the traditional experimental parts of the
discipline are at the centre of attention and everything else becomes a matter
of merely peripheral interest. It has been suggested that this bias was
connected to the author's involvement in intra-disciplinary politics where he
represented the interests of the experimentalists (O'Donnell, 1979).
But emphasis on a part of the discipline at the expense of the rest has not
supplied the only, or even the most important, criterion for privileging certain
historical developments. A second criterion has its source in the national
diversity of psychology, which provides scope for historical accounts organized
around one particular national tradition. As long as this bias is made explicit,
there is nothing objectionable about it.
However, a serious complication is introduced by the extremely unequal national
development of modern psychology. In most countries the discipline had a
difficult time in getting established. But there was one massive exception, the
The time when this could go unrecognized is now past. That is due to the gradual
decline of American predominance and the relatively greater prominence of
several other centres of significant disciplinary activity. As a result, the
image of a discipline that has one geographically defined centre is fading fast.
The model of centre and periphery is being replaced by a polycentric one (see
e.g. Moghaddam, 1987).
In a sense, modern psychology is returning to the position from which it began:
a polycentric position in which there are diverse but intercommunicating centres
of psychological work that reflect a diversity of local conditions and
traditions (Danziger, 1991). As these centres emerge against a recent historical
background of domination by one centre, they first of all feel the need to
define their own historical identity. This often takes the form of "contributionist"
history in which local figures are given their due. In due course, however,
there occurs something analogous to what Woodward (1994: 203), speaking of
feminist historiography, has referred to as "a Gestalt switch from seeking
predecessors and role models to constructing science differently". What does
First of all, it has to be recognized that the metaphor of centre and periphery
applied not only on the level of geography, but also on the level of conceptual
content and methodology. It implied a particular model of the internal structure
of the discipline. As long as this model prevailed developments at the periphery
could be seen as subject to local social influences, while the centre
represented universal values or even rationality as such.
Certain areas of the discipline, usually involving particular methodological
commitments, were designated as "basic" or "core" areas and others as areas of
"application". In the core areas experimental research was to discover universal
principles of psychological functioning, while in the peripheral areas less
rigorous procedures might suffice to study local manifestations of these
principles. The basic principles were always conceived of as asocial and
ahistorical, and their investigation was typically pursued in a decontextualized
manner. Examples of such principles are the so-called laws of learning or the
principles of cognition. There is
supposed to be nothing intrinsically social about these laws and principles;
they are thought to apply to individual organisms and individual minds,
irrespective of the social content of either learning or cognition. It is
assumed at the outset that the laws of learning and the principles of cognition
are the same everywhere and at all times. They have the same kind of
universality as the laws and principles of chemistry. However, just as in
chemistry, local conditions can affect the results of their operation. In
psychology, these local conditions are often social in nature. So we get a
dualistic model: On the one hand, basic processes that are regarded as inherent
features of individual organisms and individual minds, and on the other hand,
local social conditions that affect the specific manifestations of these
processes. The core of psychological science is constituted by the investigation
of universally valid basic processes; the study of human psychology in social
and historical context, however, is regarded as peripheral to this core
endeavour, less important because its results are not universally generalizable.
There was always a very marked parallelism between core and periphery on the
level of geography and on the level of disciplinary content. Those at the
geographical periphery usually did not have the resources to mount major
investigations of basic processes. That kind of thing generally remained the
prerogative of those at the geographical centre. Those at the geographical
periphery typically had to content themselves with being at the scientific
periphery as well. If they claimed universal validity for their findings, they
could expect these claims to be ignored. But more often they did not make such
claims; accepting the leadership of a far away centre, they accorded their own
work a purely peripheral significance in terms of the discipline as a whole.
They would take over the conceptual categories and the methodological
imperatives of the centre and try their best to apply them under local
conditions that differed profoundly from those that prevailed at the centre.
They were subject to the limitations imposed by what has sometimes been called a
"borrowed consciousness" (
In more recent years this situation has changed to the point where the structure
of the discipline, on the conceptual as much as on the geographical level, no
longer conforms to the model of one preeminent centre and its periphery. I have
already discussed geographical decentralization. Conceptually, the discipline
has fractionated into numerous sub-fields that, for the most part, have very few
ideas in common. The age of "grand theory", when a single set of principles was
to unify the discipline, is long past. Even on the level of methodology, which
always united the discipline much more effectively than any theory, there are
strong signs of an advancing eclecticism and an increasing receptivity to
procedures that were once considered beyond the pale.
I believe that changes in the historiography of psychology must be seen in the
light of these developments. It is said that every age has to write its own kind
of history. If that is the case, the polycentric historiography that is now
emerging certainly seems appropriate for our era of increasing decentralization
on both the geographical and the conceptual level. This shift to a polycentric
understanding of the history of the discipline has favoured a shift towards a
more contextualist historiography. As long as there was an equation of one
locally generated truth with the truth as such, the question of the social roots
of that truth was not likely to be asked. But with the end of privilege, both on
the geographical and the conceptual level, the intelligibility of alternative
accounts rests on seeing them in terms of their social context.
For a polycentric historiography the question of how to characterize social
context therefore becomes crucial. Here there are two temptations, that are
actually two sides of the same coin, which I think must be resisted. One
temptation is to adopt the popular discourse of modernization and to write the
history of world psychology in terms of the onward march of scientific, that is
to say modernistic, psychology. What such an account overlooks is that modernism
does not come in only one model, that it is always someone's version of
modernism, whether American, Japanese, German, Russian, or whatever. In each
case, local cultural features have been incorporated in a particular version of
modernism. There is no such thing as modernism-in-the abstract that floats above
all local cultures.
The other side of this coin is formed by a romanticizing of local traditions
that ignores the very real interlinking of local influences that has always been
such a significant feature of the history of modern psychology. There is a vast
difference between a polycentric historiography of the discipline and the mere
addition, in disconnected chapters, of one local history after another. What is
needed now is not a string of parochial visions but a focus on the changing
interrelationships among centres that have constituted the world history of the
subject in the modern period.
I must stress again that "interrelationship among centres" is to be understood
in both the geographical sense and in the sense of particular contents. When
students from many countries flocked to Leipzig and to other German centres in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and then returned home with new
ideas they established a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the modern
history of the discipline, though the direction of travel changed. Of course,
the pursuit of formal studies abroad was only one avenue through which
international links were established. Books were translated and marketed, money
was invested in scholarship funds, instruments were exported and imported,
innumerable conferences were held, and so on. In the long run, no local
tradition could be unaffected by this, but neither was the result a complete
homogenization of psychological discourse (Sloan, 1990).
A polycentric historiography must attempt to do justice to the complexity of
such phenomena. To do this it must work with categories that seek to capture the
interrelations among centres, rather than the characteristics of centres
considered in isolation. Intellectual migration is perhaps the most obvious of
these categories, not only in reference to persons, but, more significantly, in
reference to concepts and practices. What happened to psychological concepts,
theories, procedures when attempts were made to transplant them? Why did some of
these prove to be much better travellers than others? How did travelling change
them, sometimes beyond recognition? Who found them useful and why? There are
stories of successful transfer to be told here, but also stories of
misunderstanding, mistranslation, total incomprehension and downright hostility
that are often more illuminating.
The link between knowledge and power cannot be ignored when considering such
issues. Questions arise about the circumstances under which the spread of
modernistic psychological knowledge and practices can be seen as a manifestation
of cultural imperialism. It has been observed that the proliferation of the
discipline of psychology all over the world owes a great deal to "North American
advertising of its value in society" (Valsiner, 1996, p.129). At the same time,
the conceptualization of the contrast between "us", meaning the scientifically
enlightened modernizers, and "them", meaning the backward traditionalists, was
historically linked with the role played by western social science, including
psychology, in imperialist projects (Staeuble, 1992). The way in which such
contrasts converged with certain methodological patterns in the social sciences
is now beginning to become apparent.
Other questions relate to the extent to which resistance to imported ideas, a
kind of intellectual protectionism, has shaped the history of modern psychology.
Such resistance certainly played an important role in the history of modern
American psychology. Its first half century was, after all, a period of
"indigenization" that resulted in the Americanization of concepts and practices
originating in the very different intellectual and social climate of
From this perspective the history of modern psychology cannot be regarded as a
unilinear movement from the pre-modern to the modern (Mitchell & Abu-Lughod,
1993), where the modern is identified as being scientific, the pre-modern as
pre-scientific. Conceptions of what it means to be scientific in psychology have
varied at different times and in different places (see e.g. Danziger, 1990;
Dehue, 1995), and each conception of the scientific has entailed a corresponding
conception of the non-scientific. It is of course possible to write a historical
account in terms of linear developments leading up to any favoured variant of
scientificity. But all such accounts suffer from a fatal arbitrariness. A
polycentric historiography would replace them with studies of developing
co-constructions of different versions of modernity and pre-modernity.
Such studies would have to break with another powerful convention of the
traditional historiography of psychology, its marked disciplinary focus. The
history of modern psychology is commonly identified with the history of the
discipline of psychology, where the boundaries of the discipline are defined by
academic and professional organizational structures, not by the subject matter.
Whether some topic is regarded as forming part of the history of modern
psychology depends on its reception by academic departments and professional
associations. But this too is subject to local and temporal variation. Common
examples of topics with a variable status are psychoanalysis, graphology,
parapsychology, and much of social psychology. However, instead of being taken
for granted, organizationally and administratively enforced boundaries become a
major focus of inquiry for a polycentric historiography. The locally variable
reasons for the erection of such boundaries and their historical effects
constitute important features of variant developments in different parts of the
world. Clearly, when the historical construction of disciplinary boundaries
becomes an object of inquiry, the perspective of a purely intra-disciplinary
history has to be abandoned. Historical studies will then be able to contribute
to an outcome that is long overdue, namely, the "de-parochialization of the
disciplines" (Prewitt, 1996).
That raises the question of the relationship of the discipline and its history.
It is obvious that the new historiography will change this relationship. The
older linear historiography took the natural sciences as the model for the
relationship between history and disciplinary content. In the natural sciences
theoretical achievements and investigative practices are generally regarded as
being independent of local culture. Therefore the history of a science,
especially its social history, is seen as irrelevant to current issues in that
science. A physicist does not need to be enlightened about the history of
physics to be a good physicist. In the social sciences, however, the claim for
the independence of scientific categories from specific cultural traditions is
rather less plausible. Subject and object of study are generally linked by
common cultural understandings which are the products of a certain historical
experience. The relationship between current social science and historical
studies is therefore potentially more intimate than in the case of the natural
sciences (Danziger, 1994).
A polycentric historiography of psychology would have to explore the historical
dependence of the categories and procedures of scientific psychology on
culturally embedded beliefs and on local forms of institutionalized practice
(Danziger, 1997). This is likely to reinforce existing trends in the direction
of a less autocratic, more self-reflective, form of disciplinary practice. But
localization is only one side of the historical process. The other side involves
the interaction of centres and the consequent emergence of common understandings
as well as renewed differentiation. In the past, certain locally generated
categories of psychological discourse were often regarded as the only true
descriptions of the universal attributes of a timeless "human nature". Insofar
as they were built into the ahistorical methodology of so-called "cross-cultural
psychology" they were immune to empirical refutation. A different approach to
the history of psychology, however, offers the possibility of another
perspective on the question of the universality of psychological phenomena.
Though it is wrong to begin by taking such universality for granted, one could
treat it as one possible outcome of specific historical conditions that are open
to investigation. "Trans-social meanings emerge not as a result of
methodological tricks, but of a real historical process" (Stompka, 1990). Modern
psychology, with its universalizing categories and methods, might well be
accorded a significant role in this process. The new historiography is well
placed to investigate such questions.
Thus, the turn away from a unifocal linear history to a socially contextualized polycentric history is not a matter of interest only to antiquarians. It entails an enhanced link between historical reflection and current practice and will move the self-definition of the discipline much closer to the socio-historical rather than the natural sciences. Ultimately, this involves a long overdue historicizing of psychological knowledge.
Revised and expanded
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